Alastair Crooke is described on the back cover of his book as a former adviser to an EU diplomat, and the director of Conflicts Forum. You might assume he’s a Guardian-reading NGO official.
But he is also a former MI6 agent. He previously lived in Dublin, Ireland, where he was the British government’s chief contact with the IRA. After involvement in brokering the Good Friday agreement he moved to Jerusalem, where he was lead British negotiator with the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas.
In 2003 the Israelis threw him out, and since then he has argued in favour of trying to understand the politics of Islamists, and reaching a negotiated political settlement of issues in the Middle East. For this he has been attacked by such people as right wing columnist Melanie Phillips.
Crooke is then a member – or at least a privileged servant – of the ruling class. Yet he regards the “war on terror” as a strategic disaster, and understands that Islamist politics has widespread support in the Middle East because it represents resistance to Western domination.
The contradictions of this position run through the book, and in the end they fatally undermine it. Crooke does make the occasional useful point. For example, he thoroughly undermines the ignorant stereotype of “Islamic fundamentalism”, stressing the enormous range of political positions within Islamism – that deep differences exist between Hamas, Al Qaida, the Saudi royal family, Hizbollah and the Taliban.
But the real problem is that Crooke sees conflict in the Middle East as the result of differences about ideas. He mentions material realities briefly, describing the artificial national borders established in the region 100 years ago. He mentions oil nowhere, however, and barely discusses the long history of imperialist interventions, from the building of the Suez Canal to the Iraq war.
Instead he portrays conflicts between the Middle East and the West as essentially religious. Western capitalism and individualism are variants of Protestant beliefs. Islamism is to be understood by reference to the rich history of Islamic theology.
One problem with this is that Crooke’s account of medieval Islamic ideas only makes Islamism seem all the more exotic and incomprehensible. A second is that explaining conflicts as the result of cultural differences resembles right wing accounts of a “clash of civilisations”.
The real weakness is that it simply doesn’t account for the facts. In the mid-20th century opposition to Western dominance was secular – led by people like Iran’s Mohammed Mossadeq and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who Crooke doesn’t mention. These ongoing conflicts are about imperialism, not religion.
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